Pokkali is a variety of rice endemic to coastal Kerala, and is unique because it can grow in saltwater.

Man wearing a blue shirt and orange veshti next to a green paddy fieldRepresentative image of Pokkali farming
news Agriculture Saturday, April 24, 2021 - 15:56

With summer rains approaching in the coming months in Kerala, many farmers start making preparations to sow paddy in their fields. However, there is one unique variety of paddy whichis found only in Kerala. Pokkali rice is the famous salt-water resistant variety which is endemic to coastal regions of three Kerala districts—Ernakulam, Thrissur and Alappuzha. However, farmers in Ernakulam’s Chellanam who cultivate this rare variety of rice say that it is under threat due to mismanagement of infrastructure.

Pokkali rice is famous for their salinity tolerance gene SalTol QTL and is significant for the international rice improvement programmes for salinity tolerance. The rice is cultivated once a year from April to November, in the low-lying fields adjacent to Kerala’s backwaters and the Arabian Sea. The fields are mostly submerged in salt water for a major portion of the year, and are used for the cultivation of shrimp during this time. Shrimp cultivation aids the Pokkali rice in providing nutrition, since the paddy does not require any artificial fertilisers or pesticides to grow.

However, while this variety of rice seems ideal to farm, several Pokkali farmers allege that they are not receiving adequate support to keep up with the crop cycle, which is vital to pokkali farming. “Pokkali cultivation can only be successful if its crop cycle is followed. By April 15, water from the backwaters should be pumped out from the fields. This water is not good for the paddy as it contains very high salinity and other chemical remnants of shrimp cultivation. The fields should then get dried out in May. In the summer rains of May, the fields will get washed once more. Then in June, during the monsoon season, we will sow seeds,” says Francis Kalathunkal, a farmer and General Convener of Pokkali Samprakshana Samithi (Pokkali protection group). Only if all these processes occur in the right time frame, will the Pokkali be ready for harvest in November.

The reason why Pokkali farmers are finding it difficult to keep up with this cycle is because the salt water from their fields is not being pumped out in a timely fashion. Since their fields touch the backwaters, huge pumps are required to drain them of the saltwater. While the machinery has been provided by the state government, it is the farmers’ union in the region, Maruvakkad Padasekhara Karshaka Union, that controls it. And they are not doing an effective job, the farmers allege.

“Throughout the farming period, water flow should be regulated using the heavy motors. Since the past many years, this has not been done efficiently. There is a nexus between the union and the companies and firms which lease out the fields for shrimp farming,” alleges Francis. Some Pokkali farmers in the region have paid the price for this alleged mismanagement, like 73-year-old Chanthu, who incurred a loss of Rs 4.5 lakh over the last three years due to the same. “In 2019 and 2020, I lost my harvest as salt water was opened into the fields while the crops were mature. The cooperative is doing things to support the fish farmers and authorities are not bothered about this, putting us at a loss,” he laments. He also recently moved the Kerala High Court to seek the dewatering of salt water from his fields. On April 9, the court granted an interim order for the same. However, the farmers say that no move has been made to dry up the fields. Chanthu says that their problems could be solved if the management of the sluice and pump house is taken over by the state Irrigation Department, rather than left in control of the union.

According to Chanthu, Pokkali cultivation is profitable, as it is a rare variety of rice that is unique to a few regions of Kerala, and do not require expensive fertilisers or chemicals. However, due to mismanagement of infrastructure which leads to losses, the region is seeing many farmers leaving the profession for more profitable ones.

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